The path less traveled makes all the difference.
Bruno Mars makes people a little crazy, on both sides of the issue. His fans have tended to gush about his old-school skills: the extravagantly hooky choruses, the impossibly angelic voice, the big, wide-open heart and puppy-dog devotion displayed on other people’s songs and his own hits from Doo-Wops and Hooligans. His detractors have been even more apoplectic about him, accusing him of calculating his adorability, looking backwards instead of forward, and a million other sins that boil down to Bruno Mars being ... well, Bruno Mars, really.
So what’s a guy supposed to do with that? Well, if you’re Peter Gene Hernández, you double down while still marking out a new path for your creation, Bruno Mars. Unorthodox Jukebox is just as hooky as anything he’s ever done, and is sung and arranged just as perfectly as his earlier work. But it’s a much less cutesy and much more grown-up record than Doo-Wops and Hooligans, and it’s a collection that shows a new edge that should please about half of his earlier haters ... and turn off about half of his former minivan-driving fans.
Take “Natalie”, for example. It’s full of blues signifiers like field-holler noises and handclaps, and it’s got more hooks than a pirate supply store (Anthony Hamilton, someone’s been listening to your albums besides me). But the Bruno Mars we know and hate/love would never have sung about “digging a ditch / for a gold-digging bitch” and promising to hunt her down and, well, we don’t know what, because he says “WOOOO!” instead of anything definite, but it’s something bad. This is not “Marry You” territory, here, but something else entirely.
Exhibit B: the album’s requisite reggae song, “Show Me”. Gone are the Jamaica-lite skank of “The Lazy Song” and his chorus on “Billionaire”—Mars comes hard here, riding the beat like Gregory Isaacs and tossing in dub effects like they actually mean something. It’s sexy, it’s affecting, and it’s real—no matter who you are.
Oh, and there’s a lot more sex and swearing here. His massive Prince-inspired slow jam “Gorilla” leads the way, as you might imagine, with a lot of chest-pounding and f-wording and mf-wording and hair-pulling and “You and me baby makin’ love like gorillas.” This may not be your cup of herbal tea, but that doesn’t really matter to Bruno Mars this time around.
The main musical inspiration for Mars and his production team, the Smeezingtons, seems to be the late 1970s/early 1980s pop. Big catchy first single “Locked Out of Heaven” starts out like an early Police single, with some straight-up regatta-de-blanc syncopation and a shockingly good Sting vocal impression. But the chorus opens up to turn into something less Police-y and more, dare I say it, Bruno Mars-y.
This approach doesn’t always work perfectly. “Moonshine” has an amusing Simple Minds-like lope, but the chorus ends up sounding a bit like “Heartbeat”, the epically icky mid-80s single from Don Johnson. If you remember “Heartbeat”, you’ll know why it tarnishes “Moonshine” by association. Much better is the Cameo/MJ/Prince funk of “Treasure”, which knows that a flirt beats a bleat any day, or closer “If I Knew”, which is EASILY the best Sam Cooke song of the year.
But I guess I’m just corny enough to prefer it when Mars looks to create something that’s truly his own. His pastiche skills have always been on point—never forget that the Smeezingtons co-wrote and produced Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” or “Forget You” or whatever the kids are calling it these days—but it’s always refreshing to hear an artist search for something that is truly his or her own. The opener here, “Young Girls”, is as widescreen and wide-open as things get these days, with a thumping martial beat and the classic lament, “Oh you young wild girls / You’ll be the death of me.” Similarly, “Money Make Her Smile” is a slow thumper that steals musical and lyrical tropes from strip-club anthems, but seems to have its mind somewhere else, especially when it goes into the weird double-time segment after the chorus.
All in all, this is a truly accomplished and slick pop album, but its lyrical content will probably lose Bruno Mars some sales and some of his core audience. It’s a fair trade-off. The path less traveled makes all the difference.